The most productive season of D’Angelo Russell’s young career has been officially derailed. The Nets announced Friday that Russell, who was originally diagnosed with a left knee contusion earlier this week, underwent arthroscopic surgery. His timetable to return is unknown and indefinite, though recovery from such a surgery should still put Russell well within range for a return this season.
Since his offseason trade to the Nets, Russell had made the most of his opportunities running the show for the fastest-paced offense in the league. Brooklyn very clearly operates at a loss in terms of talent; the reason they traded for Russell in the first place—at the cost of absorbing Timofey Mozgov’s massive contract—was to take a swing for the sort of star-in-the-making they otherwise lacked. Russell isn’t yet the kind of player a franchise could build around, though his play this season has hinted he someday might be. Not every young player comes ready to dominate out of the gate, a la Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Some need to find their way and, in Russell’s case, grow up.
Already Russell has played opener to an 82-game Kobe Bryant tribute, grated with his previous coaches, lost the trust of his former Laker teammates and inspired a trade just two years after being selected with the No. 2 overall pick. He is 21-years-old. Brooklyn was positioned perfectly to make itself a part of Russell’s maturation process, and already has seen the young guard produce at a high level (20.9 points, 5.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game) in somewhat limited minutes (27.8). The kind of talent Russell has pops. One can find a sounder initiator of the offense or more seasoned all-around veterans, but the reason the Nets have invested in Russell is that he sees—and completes—plays that most other players cannot.
Unfortunately, all that will have to wait. All the work Brooklyn has put into developing their lead guard now comes to an unfortunate halt. There are ways for Russell to keep involved with the team as he recovers, as well as opportunities to improve himself both physically and mentally. All pale in comparison to the developmental process of playing real, live NBA basketball under a coaching staff that can hold him accountable. The Nets, too, will suffer under the weight of losing yet another point guard. Incumbent starter Jeremy Lin suffered a ruptured patellar tendon in his first game of the season, cinching up the rotation. Spencer Dinwiddie’s success this season has made that outcome less troublesome than it might seem, yet no team as under-equipped as the Nets could coast through the (temporary) loss of two starter-caliber players without cost. So long as Russell is out or limited, everything for the 5-9 Nets gets notably more difficult.